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to Sustain Community?
A Feature Review of
When the English Fall: A Novel
Hardback: Algonquin Books, 2017
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Reviewed by Andrew Stout
There is nothing intuitive about the notion of a dystopian story delivered in the form of a meditative, epistolary novel. However, David Williams has taken this strange notion and executed it in a way that feels perfectly natural. There is something oddly fitting about observing a widespread cultural and technological collapse through the journal entries of an Amish farmer. From the outset, Williams strikes a balance between a sense of disease and tranquility. Or perhaps it would be better to say that he effectively holds in tension a foreboding atmosphere with a sense of quiet stability.
Jacob’s journal entries record a daily life filled with furniture making, preparation and preservation of food, all the basic chores of farm life, socializing after long days of work, and the rest of Sabbath worship. The stability of this difficult, but fulfilling life is threatened when a solar storm lights up the night, knocking planes out of the sky, decimating the electrical grid, and causing near complete technological failure. To Amish this is a spectacular display of heavenly lights. To the “English” (the Amish term used for those who live outside their Order) it is a crippling disaster. Daily life for Jacob, his family, and their community suffers only minimal disruption at first, but it quickly becomes clear that the fall of the English will encroach on the existence of their Order as well.
While the solar storm is the definitive turning point in the action of the plot, the sense of peace that characterizes the Order is vulnerable from the outset. Sadie, Jacob’s young daughter, is prone to seizures. These seizures are violent and require forceful restraint. The peace of the home is broken before the pressure from the outside world is an issue. More than that, her seizures and her odd personality causes unrest among their neighbors. Her dreams and utterances seem to be both prophetic and ominous. There seems to be an inverse relationship between Sadie’s physical condition and the outside world, her condition improving as the rest of the world collapses.
Williams thoughtfully develops a number of important themes over the course of the novel. One is the hard but comforting nature of providence. Early on, Jacob reflects, “all things are blessings, even the hard things” (6). Circumstances put this claim to the test, and Jacob accepts increasing trials with patience and trust.
Another important theme is the interdependence of human beings. Initially, we can see how the Amish community functions through reliance on one another. “It is a simple truth, that we all serve one another” (153). After the disaster, this simple truth is shown to be descriptive of the Amish and the outside world as well. The English begin to depend on the Amish for their stores of food, and the Amish realize that the protection of the outside world has largely enabled the peace they have enjoyed. Their separatist pride is broken down as they are forced to confront their mutual dependence on the English. Ultimately, the very existence of the Amish signals hope for a broken world. As Abram, a member of the Order reflects at one point, “If there is no place that has strength, then death comes quickly” (65). In the literal sense, Jacob is remembering his father’s body succumbing to cancer, but his statement also provokes this question: Is this Amish community “the place that has strength” for a world in crisis?
A final theme has to do with the nature of redemptive suffering. Jacob has cultivated a deep understanding of – or at least a profound trust in – divine providence, one that sustains him as he confronts hardship. But as the crisis intensifies, there comes a point when circumstances cannot simply be endured with patience. Instead, Jacob and his community must actively chose a more difficult path. The violence around them intensifies, and the community must decide if it is still possible for them to maintain their peaceful witness in such circumstances. Again, Sadie sounds prophetic as she meditates on the will of God in these troubling circumstances: “God’s will is too big for me to see. It hurts to see even part of it. Like a fire. But I think it will be better if we go, and face the harder journey. More like Him” (232).
Much of Stanley Hauerwas’s work in theological ethics has been shaped by the alternative societies formed by Anabaptist groups like the Amish. In that work, he has observed how difficult it is to envision a community truly defined by peace. Hauerwas has recently observed, “I intuited early on that the great problem is knowing how to characterize peace, because we just seem to know what violence is but we’re not sure what peace is.” Rather than theorizing about nonviolence, Hauerwas has tried “to help people see peace.” Williams has done just that in When the English Fall. He has written a thoughtful, meditative novel that convincingly depicts the daily life of a community that is dedicated to simplicity, humility, and peace. The journal format lends itself effectively to achieving this tone. Williams juxtaposes this community with a violent and broken society, and it is the fallen world that comes away looking strange or foreign by comparison. By showing us what it looks like to orient one’s life toward peacemaking, Williams helps us to imagine what it might look like to see reconciliation and true community forged in a world marred by violence.
What is it that makes most dystopian literature work? What attracts us to stories about societal collapse and the struggle to survive? Often we are drawn by the shock value of imagining our everyday lives in ruins. Maybe we are inspired by the idea of the indomitable human spirit, heroic survival in the midst of destruction and chaos. We live with the fear that the smooth operations of our daily lives could unravel very quickly, and perhaps telling stories about survival when everything we’ve depended on has fallen away brings some kind of comfort.
When the English Fall doesn’t fit easily in the dystopian genre. It certainly bears many of the marks and deals with some of the same concerns as other dystopian literature. Williams categorizes his story as an “apocalyptic” novel. The genre of apocalypse is “about stripping away all of the fluff and pretense and getting down to what matters.” The apocalypse in this story reveals the fragility, isolation, and fear that underlies so much of contemporary life. It makes clear that humility, sacrifice, and service are necessary to sustain community. By spurning the superficial interconnectedness of our technological society, the Amish serve as a witness to the deep, substantive connections that truly sustain communities – as well as to the Creator and Redeemer who binds all humanity together.
Andrew Stout is a librarian at the St. Charles Community College Library. His articles and reviews have appeared in the journals Religion and the Arts, Literature and Theology, and Pro Ecclesia. You can find him on Twitter: @ThomasACStout
 Brian Brock and Stanley Hauerwas, Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas, ed. Kevin Hargaden (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017), 96.
 David Williams, “The Root of Apocalypse,” The Algonquin Reader 6, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 18.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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